What’s Next

When we started this internship just over eight weeks ago, I had absolutely no idea what would be possible for us to accomplish. I’ll admit, I wasn’t very optimistic. As I’ve said before on the blog, I’ve never been a very digital person. When my mom told me I should learn to code, I learned how to make books instead. The moment my computer misbehaves, I call a tech-savvy friend to come save the day. I took this internship because I wanted to change this, and to develop new ways of thinking about research and scholarship, but I also brought with me a whole host of digital insecurities. I’m proud to say that, for me, our website represents a tremendous amounts of growth, and I’m excited to present the final result to the Amherst community.

Digital scholarship required me to be much more cognizant of my methods and how they affected the data and materials I was drawing from. Perhaps this was because I was using tools and methods that were previously unfamiliar to me, but during this summer I often found myself thinking critically about the ways in which  the tools and methods I was using to study and present my data and research shaped and directed our understanding of these materials and the arguments I drew from them. Though this is definitely something I’ve also done while working on more traditional written scholarship projects, it was more present in my mind when I started to work digitally.

Next year, I’m conducting on a major self-directed research project in New Delhi, India, and I’ll absolutely be taking the skills and methods I learned this summer with me. As my work will require quite a bit of travel and my physical resources will be limited, the ability to use digital methods for documenting and presenting my work will be hugely advantageous, and I’m excited to discover new applications of the skills we developed this summer.

To the next group of Digital Scholarship Summer Interns, your most valuable assets during the program will be your peers. Though you may each have (seemingly) disparate interests and project ideas, some of the most meaningful, thought-provoking moments for me this summer came from spontaneous brainstorming sessions amongst the four of us, and whenever I reached a sticking point, team members were there to help me regain the momentum I needed. A related note—don’t underestimate the power of the white boards in the Barker Room. Sometimes the best (or only) way to articulate messy research ideas and aspirations is through series of concept maps and diagrams, unintelligible to anyone but yourselves.

New Perspectives

Today we took a field trip to the Jones Library Special Collections and the Emily Dickinson Museum as a means to expand our understanding of nineteenth century Amherst. This was really exciting, because not only did these excursions deepen our understanding of the historical context surrounding early Amherst, they also allowed us to break out of our everyday Barker Room-Frost Cafe-Archives routine, which definitely helped me to refocus and consider my work from different perspectives.


A *small* change in scenery
A *small* change in scenery

At the Jones, we looked at several photographs I hadn’t seen before, both of Amherst College and the town of Amherst. These we a huge help in my own mental visual and spatial reconstructions of Amherst. It was also exciting to hear Amanda speak about some of the photos and locations, because so much of her work and her contributions to our final project have to do with these spaces and the people that inhabited them. I’m really looking forward to interacting with her final product!

The Dickinson Museum was also inspiring. I’ve always been quite ashamed that in all my time at Amherst, I never once visited the Dickinson Homestead, but today, as an alumna, I finally made it! Immersing ourselves in two nineteenth-century spaces—the Homestead and the Evergreens—was an important exercise, I think, for two main reasons:

1.) It permitted us to consider (very approximately, of course) what life physically looked like and felt like during that time. Architecture and interior spaces are often such a central part of human experience, and being able to engage with these spaces gave me a better sense of the period we’re working on.

2.) The tour itself was informative, not only for its content, which was excellent, but also for its structure and style. During the tour, I thought a lot about our guide’s use of visual materials and interactivity, which engaged us in ways that went beyond a simple lecture might. The organization and the curation of the tour got me thinking again about how our viewers will interact with our projects, and what types of guiding and interactivity we might try to facilitate on the website.

This all comes at the perfect time, because we are starting to hit the final stretch (!) of the internship, and are really starting to dig into our respective components of the final project, so the look, structure, and organization of the website are definitely becoming very real considerations, which must be determined very, very soon.

There’s definitely lots to consider and process over the weekend, but I think that we’ll all be heading into next week with lots of new inspiration and momentum!

Missing Metadata, Categorization Chaos


Currently, I’m most excited about the mini project centered around the original college library (If you’ve been following our internship at all over the past few weeks this probably comes as no surprise…). I’m interested in asking the following research questions: How do student-developed and institution-developed libraries differ in terms of subject matter and contents in the 1830s at Amherst? Are library collections during this time at the college consistent with the college curriculum, or not?

Seeking answers to these questions will elucidate the place of college libraries in the early intellectual environment at Amherst. With those questions and goals in mind, over the past few days, I’ve been examining potential primary sources for the project in the archives. These include: The 1833 College Library Catalogue (manuscript), the 1833-44 Alexandrian Society Library Catalogue (manuscript), and the 1821-36 Athenian Society Library Catalogue (print).

I specify whether or not these sources are printed or handwritten because this has substantively affected how I engage with them. The printed Athenian Library Catalogue is exceptionally user-friendly compared to the other two…it is completely legible, intuitively organized, and tallies the total number of books in each subject area in a nifty little table in the back. The other two catalogues are far more challenging. Since they’re handwritten, they were able to be expanded and corrected over time, making them more difficult to read and understand through crossed out areas, different hands, and different organizational styles, and the nineteenth century handwriting doesn’t help…

On top of that, each catalogue has a different way (or lack thereof) of organizing their books and presents a different set of information about the texts, which adds another layer of difficulty to the task of comparing the contents of the three libraries (this experience is certainly deepening my library-nerd love and appreciation for standardized call number systems like Dewey and LOC…). 

In essence, as I begin to tackle these materials, I’m having major flashbacks to the metadata workshop–if you’re not really deliberate and standardized about how you categorize/organize/structure metadata, it becomes really hard for future people to do anything with the piles of stuff you leave behind.

Then there is the problem of trying to impose categorization onto bodies of materials that were not organized by subject matter in the first place, like the college library, which is essentially a giant list with no discernible order. Some of the books have ambiguous titles or might fit in more than one category, and as the researcher, I must decide where these books fit. I am trying my best to be faithful to the categories already designated by the other nineteenth century catalogues, but in order to apply these categories to other materials that were originally uncategorized, I’ll have to be sure I understand what the categories meant back then.

Though the research and data collection methodologies here are posing quite a challenge so far, this is a project that I’m very excited about, and hope to produce compelling data visualizations from once I’ve been able to structure and compile the data. Hopefully, armed with my ever-deepening appreciation for metadata, I’ll be up for the challenge!

(and hopefully, as library practices have become far more standardized and metadata-focused, researchers of the future will have a less-difficult time working with the stuff that we leave behind!)

Visualizing the Final Project…

We have no shortage of research questions—the list is ever expanding. However, at the moment, the question that I think is present on most of our minds is not necessarily one of content, and has much more to do with our methods and approaches going forward. As a cohort, we all seem to agree that we want to produce a project with a strong sense of cohesiveness—though we will all inevitably work on separate pieces,  I think I speak for all of us when I say that our vision is not necessarily one of four discrete projects under a broad, unifying theme. 

However, what our vision will actually look like has been more difficult to articulate—fitting the work and interests of four different brains into a unified final product sounds great in abstract terms, but it has been challenging to define what that might actually look like in practice. Today, we had an excellent improptu brainstorming session (first just the four of us, later with Sarah and Este) in which we sketched out visualizations, lists, and diagrams of how we might go about structuring our collaborative website and integrating our ideas in a (relatively) seamless fashion. We don’t have answers necessarily, but we do have a big pile of thoughts and directions to process over the long weekend!

Our first step will be to each do a bit more individual research, and to get a better sense of the research topic and materials that we’re most interested in. Monday, we’ll get together for a bit more brainstorming, diagramming, and concept mapping to see how we might best organize, connect, and integrate these. I’m still totally drawn to the development of libraries at Amherst—what was in them, how that related to the college curriculum, how student-developed libraries compared to institutional ones, etc. etc. etc… 

In the next working day or so, I’m planning to construct a rough research plan centered around these interests, which I’ll share with my fellow interns. Each of us will share our loosely-conceived ideas, and we’ll talk together about how they connect or speak to larger questions or directions.

We’re still leaving a lot of room for each other to express and explore individual interests, but I’m loving how well this team is working together so far. Unstructured brainstorming sessions and discussions amongst the four of us have really been some of the most compelling moments of the internship for me so far, and I’m sure that what comes next will be a reflection of this incredible team dynamic.

On Methods, Data, and Proposals

This week, was a particularly transitory period of the internship—we were not quite finished with methodology workshops, but at the same time, were poised to begin to construct proposals for more substantive research. This, to me, seemed like a research-process-sweet-spot: we’re pretty familiar with the tools and methods that are available to us, but it still feels like there is enough temporal wiggle-room to be really ambitious with our ideas, to think broadly and imaginatively about potential project avenues. Inevitable limits of time and practicality have not quite set in yet.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about how we interpret and understand “data” as a concept. Earlier this week, we read Johanna Drucker’s article “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display,” in which she identifies a need for data constructions and visualizations that are more in line with the uncertainty and persistent questioning practices that are characteristic of the humanities. Data is so often taken at face value and as fact, with little substantive questioning of any methodological underpinnings or assumptions inherent in data collection and organization practices. As I start to think about how data visualization might play into our final project, I’m also thinking about how data visualizations work and what they do.

I’ll use my current interest/proposal as an example. After spending a lot of time digging through finding aids and library catalogues, I became fascinated by the college’s original library, and its relationship to concurrent student libraries, the contents of which are documented in the archives. I decided that it would be interesting to consider the differences between student-curated versus faculty curated library collections, potentially comparing both subject matter and locations from which books were sourced in each case. As a first stab at this project, I began compiling a spreadsheet of data on books in the original college library. Immediately, I realized how much my own decisions and biases would affect the results of my research. Before I even arrived at this point, librarians decided on a relevant set of metadata with which to describe the books in the online catalogue. On my end, in order to compile this data, I had to decide which pieces of previously-created metadata about the books were relevant to my project, and also had to decide on a standardized list of subject headings under which the books could be grouped for my purposes. Just like that, I felt my own priorities, assumptions, and prior training “contaminating” the information in front of me… 

Though I have little to offer in terms of ways to rectify this conundrum—Drucker herself calls the task “enormous”—I think that a first step is to make apparent the decisions and biases that contributed to the construction of a project by outlining our methodology and research process for reader-viewers, such that they are equipped with enough context and information to examine DH projects not simply at their face value, but also from a critical/ever-questioning/humanities-informed  standpoint.

On another note, this week was especially fun because I think we really began to see where our interests might intersect or fit together to create a cohesive final project. I’m particularly excited because all four of us are so committed to making sure the final product reads as a cohesive, though multi-faceted, project, and plan to link our sub-projects to one another, compelling the reader-viewer to draw their own connections between pages. We have lots more to do–we’re still pitching new ideas and tweaking projects every day–but I’m excited to continue to draw connections and collaborate as the final proposal takes shape!

Tool or Topic?


Which comes first: tool or topic? This question has loomed large over our first week of methodology workshops. As I see it, the work we did followed two distinct strands this week:

1.) The craft of archival research: how to ask researchable questions of archival materials, how to navigate collections and databases, how to be imaginative and far-reaching in our research and question-forming practices.

2.) The (wild) world of digital methodologies: how to use and navigate digital tools, how to evaluate digital scholarship, how to assess which tools might be useful and which less so given a research question/data set.

Currently, these still feel like two fairly separate tracks—we jump into a digital methodology workshop for a few hours here, spend a few hours deciphering nineteenth century correspondences there—but soon, very soon, we’re going to have to weave the work we’re doing on both fronts into one (hopefully) coherent, insightful work of scholarship. I return, then, to my first question—which comes first, tool or topic? I’m still not sure.

Dramatic renditioning of me in the archives, puzzling over all the possible ways I might formulate a research question... (Albrecht Dürer's 1514 engraving "Melencolia I")
Dramatic renditioning of me in the archives, puzzling over all the possible ways I might formulate a research question…
(Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving “Melencolia I”)

Trevor Owens’s blog post “Where to Start? On Research Questions in the Digital Humanities” provides some comfort in the face of this uncertainty. Owens’s characterization of DH research as an exploratory process, with many potential starting points depending on a project’s objectives, speaks to how I’ve felt over the past few days, as I’ve begun to get a better sense of what is (and is not) possible given our research collections, tool access, and collective skill set. 

In the past, when I’ve approached a major research project, I’ve done so with a particular set of images or objects in mind…my art historical brain is drawn first to the visual or material subject matter, from which my research questions inevitably develop and multiply. Here, instead, I find myself drawn to more vast groups of materials, and to content and questions that I wouldn’t usually tackle with my toolbox of traditional humanities scholarship methods.

A recent idea I had comes to mind: the Archives and Special Collections at Amherst has preserved the volumes that comprised original library of the college, and to this day, they remain together in the special collections stacks. The archives also houses the library catalogues of the two early literary societies, which were hugely popular amongst students in the early years of the college. Especially as a few of us are interested in considering student-directed learning vs. faculty-directed learning practices in this early period, I think that comparing the types of books students were collecting versus the types of books the faculty were collecting could be particularly illuminating, and perhaps would be a good candidate for some kind of data visualization technique…

However, we still have so much more to learn, and I can’t be sure where a new batch of tools and methods might direct my thinking next week…  Either way, though, I’m learning to embrace the uncertainty and the interplay between our tool-motivated ideas and our topic-motivated ideas going forward.

First Thoughts

We’ve spent the last two days immersing ourselves in the wide-ranging, somewhat nebulous world of digital humanities, and while I am overwhelmed by the field’s immensity, I am also so excited by all of the potential that its methodologies offer.

Aside from commonplace, expected student uses of technology, I’m coming at this internship with absolutely no experience with digital anything. I was a double major in Chemistry and the History of Art at Amherst, and spent most of my time here buried in piles of dusty books or in the lab, conducting experiments. As I grew here as a student and as a researcher, I did notice the increasing role of digital tools and methodologies in both of my major fields, but I never had the time or training to substantively explore them. This summer, I am excited to finally immerse myself in the realm of the digital, and to understand how the digital humanities may expand, redevelop, and perhaps complicate my previous approaches to humanities research. 

In his chapter “The Emergence of Digital Humanities (as the Network is Everting),” Steven Jones writes about digital humanities as more than just the digitization of materials that constitute humanities research—instead, he says, it is “…characterized by two-way interactions between two realms, physical artifacts and digital media.” This was an important point for me, because, as an art history student, I am often intensely focused on the physicality and materiality of the objects I study, and often, I’m frustrated when left with only digital reproductions to work with. However, understanding digital humanities as a conversation between the physical and digital, as a decentering of the physical object in order to make space for new types of dialogue and inquiry, strikes me as an exciting new way of thinking, and as something to consider in my own research going forward. This summer, I hope gain a better understanding of what that might look like in practice.